The primary foreign-policy maker in this administration remains the president. The primary location for the shaping of major policy decisions remains the White House and the National Security Staff. Of the most influential foreign-policy makers in this administration, most of the important ones are remaining right where they were: in the White House. That includes not only the president but also Vice President Joe Biden, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, and Donilon’s former deputy and now Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. McDonough’s replacement, Tony Blinken, didn’t have to carry his boxes very far either as he already was the VP’s national security advisor in the last term. So continuity should be expected.
You wouldn’t know it from all the handwringing on Capitol Hill or media navel-gazing about cabinet choices, but neither Kerry nor his eventual counterpart at the Pentagon is likely to change very much at all about the administration’s international agenda. This is true to some degree because, as just noted, the policymaker-in-chief remains the same guy supported by the same team in the same place. But it is also true because the important drivers of that agenda are beyond the control of the top guys in Foggy Bottom or at the Pentagon.
The most important of these external drivers is what’s actually happening in the world. Fantasies about America pulling the strings for the planet aside, the reality is that most foreign policy is reactive (“Events, my dear boy, events.”). Next, there is the important and often overlooked reality that most U.S. foreign policy conforms to historical norms and patterns.